How Reagan plans to beat Carter in November; Talking their way to the top: VP hopefuls 'try out' on Detroit stage

Others might call the GOP convention a non-drama. But the candidate-in-waiting himself, Ronald Reagan, has been absorbedly following the platform performances of his fellow Republican pros.

Getting closest attention -- a tryout in the klieg heat, in fact -- are the eight vice-presidential candidates on the program.

In a trailer behind Joe Louis Arena and in suites high up in the Detroit Plaza Hotel nearby, Reagan personnel -- and Mr. and Mrs. Reagan -- have been closely observing and taping the performances for signs of the visible campaign platform gift that would best complement Mr. Reagan's. And the tryouts explain why many here believe the Californian when he says he has not made his final choice.

But three of the host Michiganders have also been getting particular attention -- former President Gerald Ford (now officially a California resident) , Gov. William G. Milliken, and Rep. Guy Vander Jagt.

The three Michiganders represent approaches that could help ease the conservative hammerlock on the convention, link GOP leadership to blue-collar and urban needs, and, in Mr. Vander Jagt's case, possibly repeat Ronald Reagan's own leap from political obscurity to fame with a single speech.

President Ford, in one of his two most memorable public addresses, gallantly passed the mantle of party leadership over to Mr. Reagan -- the man he had vanquished on the occasion of his previous rousing oration, the GOP's bitter 1976 nomination showdown between the two men.

Mr. Ford's 1980 example of magnanimity earlier this week, reversing the near-snub he received in Reagan support four years ago, will not be lost on restive conservatives in Detroit who so far have won in every tilt and challenge , from rules to platform jousts, party officials say.

Behind Mr. Ford's hearty reception here was "a certain nostalgic attraction," as Maryland conservative Congressman Robert Bauman puts it.But beyond nostalgia, it also showed considerable respect for the GOP moderate wing's most potent champion, and more potential leeway for a moderate vice-presidential choice than the conservatives previously would concede. Mr. Bauman, however, would still prefer "a Reagan clone" for vice-president, he says.

The Ford attack on President Carter -- highlighted by lines like "He has given up on the presidency, and still wants the job" -- hinted at fall campaign themes, but also indicated that a moderate can be counted on to campaign effectively on basic GOP issues.

Governor Milliken found himself in a bind as both convention host and spokesman of moderate causes like the Equal Rights Amendment -- at one point meeting the anti-ERA nominee-to-be at Detroit's metropolitan airport while his wife led an ERA march downtown.

Yet Mr. Milliken also represents a case study in how Republicans can successfully reach out to working-class, minority, big-city Democratic voters whom Republicans must court to carry the crucial industrial states this fall. In his last election, Mr. Milliken even carried Wayne County, a Detroit Democratic stronghold since Great Depression days. He helped pass legislation -- tax breaks for business to keep industry in Detroit and for homeowners who locate downtown -- over the reluctance of a mostly suburban and out-state legislature.

His working relationship with Detroit's black mayor Coleman Young, a Jimmy Carter backer, has led to the local rubric "the odd couple."

"Detroit is a symbol of industrial America," Mr. Milliken told the convention , "of what it once was, of how it has declined and of the noble efforts under way to make cities liveable again.

"It is succeeding because it has mobilized diverse interests, including a unique cooperation between government at all levels and private enterprise."

Mr. Vander Jagt's performance Tuesday night could turn out to have been a convention turning point -- or just another disappointing TV screen test, party officials say.

"It is not known on the outside, but it's significant Reagan himself wanted Vander Jagt as keynoter," says a Republican insider. Mr. Reagan's own political career was launched by a single speech -- his 1964 fund-raising epic for Barry Goldwater.

Governor Reagan listened to Mr. Vander Jagt speak on three occasions as a stand-in for Reagan opponent Gerald Ford in 1976. He was impressed enough even in opposition to award Vander Jagt the plum speaking spot here in Detroit, conservation and moderate insiders told the Monitor.

Candidates trying out prior to Mr. Vander Jagt failed to show great luster, let alone clinch the job outright, observers here agreed. Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana delivered a "put America back to work, re-arm our country" address deemed uninspired. Former Treasury Secretary William Simon "did himself in," one GOP official said, with a melodramatic "the hours is late, the crisis is near" talk.

Donald Rumsfeld, Ford chief of staff and NATO envoy, gave a well-crafted, high-tension speech that impressed many here with its intensity. The theme, however -- "Our weakness is provoking predator nations to act out their worst instincts" -- struck others as hawkish in policy, strident in tone.

Reagan staff sources point out that Mr. Vander Jagt's lack of foreign policy experience -- the most-mentioned count against him -- may mean less on the hustings than how well he can present "the general themes of war and peace, strength and weakness." Mr. Reagan gave the Michigan orator the best chance of the group as keynoter, they say, to win the job if he could.

"The dynamics of the hall diminish the potential for impact" in the vice-presidential tryouts, observes Mr. Bauman. "The accoustics in the hall are terrible, and no order is being asked for."

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